The banana skin of Catalan politics: How the trial of ex-police chief Trapero risks further inflaming tensions over independence

Spain’s judiciary is, of course, independent – but the decisions by prosecutors leading up to this point seem to miss the reality of the situation. Catalonia’s independence movement tried in many ways to force the issue onto the political agenda. They won election after election; they won the 2014 ‘self-determination’ referendum, and they tried to hold an independence referendum in 2017. The Spanish government ruled that illegal, confiscating some of the ballot boxes. The Catalan Parliament symbolically declared independence, then immediately ‘suspended’ that declaration. It was a political stunt, not an attempted coup.

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Top Catalan politicians are already languishing in jail over their role in the ‘illegal’ 2017 referendum. Years later, in 2020, the prosecutions are still continuing. This week, it’s the former chief of the Catalan police who has been put on trial. Essentially, he was put in a position where he had to choose: did he take orders from Barcelona, or Madrid? As the chief of Catalan police, he listened to the Catalan authorities. For making that decision, he’s being accused of sedition and prosecutors are asking for an 11-year jail sentence.

At a time when the European Union has been very keen to wade in elsewhere, using Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union to take robust action against the governments of Poland and Hungary, it continues to turn a blind eye to what’s going on in Spain. We can expect little, if any, comment from the European Commission. We can, however, expect further reaction from the Catalan people. When I visited Catalonia, I was always struck by how positive and peaceful the protests were. As time has gone on, as people have felt their voices are not only being ignored but actively trampled on, it’s become less and less peaceful. If Trapero is jailed at the end of the two-month trial, it will only pour further fuel on the fire.

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The next prosecution expected will be of an academic at a leading Scottish university. Because Clara Ponsati was the education minister and participated in the organisation of the referendum, she too is facing trial. A European Arrest Warrant was issued for her arrest in Scotland. I don’t believe that this can achieve anything positive. All it will do is continue to inflame a difficult situation. There is no upside to Spain, or to Catalonia, from this action.

Every new prosecution puts more salt into the wounds of those who feel that there is no self-determination in Catalonia. Surely, though, there would be a better course of action. The new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is leading a fragile government. Being under pressure from both sides, as well as needing the Catalan MPs to avoid bringing his government down, he’s walking something of a tightrope.

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Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest regions. The Spanish government has long resisted giving Catalonia the same tax autonomy as the Basque region, because if they did so the Spanish treasury would lose out. If Sanchez were to concede ground on this, he would probably do enough to quell the independence movement. It would be expensive for the rest of Spain – and difficult for him to get the policy through. That, no doubt, is why previous Spanish governments have not attempted it. Ultimately though, it will either be that compromise or we’ll see more ‘High Noon’ moments as the Catalan independence movement is not going away.

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